Behind the Scenes with the Army Corps of Engineers

Behind the Scenes with the Army Corps of Engineers

Covid Heroes: Doing mostly anonymous things to help their communities

I keep promising that I’m not going to talk about Covid. It’s behind us, and we’re moving on. But Covid stole an entire year out of our lives and it’s had enormous sociological and economic impacts. Every once in a while I run across a story about Covid heroes—the thousands of people who did mostly small, anonymous things to help their communities during that long, isolating year. We never hear much about the Army Corps of Engineers for a reason—they’re too busy doing their jobs. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told.

Meet General Todd Semonite

Army Corps of Engineers’ Lieutenant General Todd Semonite had a long, distinguished military career and was looking forward to retirement. When the Covid pandemic swept through communities and patients filled hospital wards, Semonite put his retirement plans on hold and responded once again to a national emergency.

Semonite had led projects across Europe, Africa and the Middle East

This time Semonite’s role was that of architect of a nationwide plan to build emergency hospital beds in states with critical shortages. He led the transformation of our cities’ big public facilities–convention centers, sports arenas and shopping malls–into makeshift hospitals that could meet the demands of an epidemic that quickly became a pandemic.

The Army Corps had more than 17 construction contracts to 15,500-plus beds in several states—and that was just the beginning. Think back to the early days of the pandemic when not every governor was ready to embrace the reality of Covid and the implications of closing down businesses, wearing masks and taking drastic measures to control the spread of disease. More than a year later, convincing local governments of the necessity of taking extreme measures continues to make it difficult to gain control of this virus. Unfortunately, this puts us all at risk, and it means that the virus will continue to be a worldwide threat.

For the Army Corps, it starts with options and immediacy

Semonite’s engineers sit-down face-to-face with state and city leaders. They talk them through their options — and warn them that being a day or two behind the curve could be too late.

New York City’s Javits Center was ideal for an emergency conversion

Looking back at the early days of Covid, New York was the epicenter of the US outbreak. Medical teams were getting sick and dying. Those who survived were working long, grueling hours. Hospitals were maxed out, and patients were lined up in the hallways. Staff were triaging patients, sending the less-desperate back home.

The Corps met with Governor Cuomo to talk about the Javits Center’s 1.8 million square feet of exhibit space, detachable wall partitions and hookups for plumbing and electricity every ten feet. The facility was ideal for what the Army Corps wanted to do. The original plan for the building was to take non-COVID patients to free up space in maxed-out hospitals. As the number of Covid-infected patients escalated to more than 90,000, Cuomo asked if Javits could be used to treat COVID patients.

Concern about airflow and spreading Covid

Semonite’s engineers made some changes and adjusted the ventilation system to allow both COVID and non-COVID patients to be treated in the building, minimizing the risk of spreading the disease. A “negative-pressure room” was created to ensure particles dropped to the ground rather than linger in the air. Engineers tinkered with the ventilation system to help with creating that vacuum whenever doors were opened or shut.

The hard part of the Corps’ job: Not the engineering, but the decision-making

“The hardest part isn’t the engineering piece — that’s pretty easy, It’s decision-making,” Semonite says. If you’re a mayor and can’t make a decision, you’re putting your people at-risk.” Besides New York City’s Javits Center conversion, the Army Corps of Engineers moved quickly to convert these facilities as well.

  • In Chicago, McCormick Place was converted into a 3,000-bed facility for COVID patients.
  • New Orleans’ Morial Convention Center, which once hosted Hurricane Katrina survivors, was turned into a 1,000-bed hospital for COVID patients.
  • In Detroit, the auto show was put on indefinite hold and the TCF Center was transformed into a 1,000-bed field hospital with two separate floors for COVID patients.

Facilities construction of the future will include pandemic planning

Army Corps officials believe that future proposals for convention centers and sports stadiums will likely integrate pandemic-planning in their designs. They will need to consider scale and efficiency so that healthcare providers can supervise many patients at once, freeing up other workers to concentrate on the most severe cases at permanent hospitals. Trucks and buses will need access to easily move people and supplies in and out, and the buildings will need to be equipped with massive amounts of electrical power necessary to keep a hospital going 24/7 in emergency situations.

Semonite and retirement?

Not happening. Instead of farewell parties and happy sendoffs, Semonite worked 20-hour days and appeared on nightly news programs providing pandemic updates. An update on Semonite since this article appeared. He has retired, but he’s not spending his days on the golf course. Semonite is leading a multidisciplinary team that delivers dynamic engineering solutions for U.S. government agencies.

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The information in this story is based on an article in Time Magazine.